A Character Manifesto

By on February 2nd, 2018 in Articles, Ethics, Human Impacts, Social Implications of Technology, Societal Impact

There is a significant “extra” on the Wonder Woman movie DVD called “Finding The Wonder Woman Within. (This link is to a fandom site in China; I was not able to find a U.S. site with the video.) This 23 minute “documentary” features a combination of poetry and (mostly) women speaking to a set of values that the producers of the movie and DC Comics seek to portray with Wonder Woman. It is a “character manifesto,” both in terms of the nature of the movie character and the character values that the poets and interviewees describe. Values like courage, wonder, equality, grace, and power are addressed, often in very powerful ways. The interviewees range from movie and comic folks to NASA engineers and race car drivers.

There is a different public dialog running concurrently right now. One variation of this is the #MeToo explosion of reporting of abuse that has surfaced in a wide range of professions, organizations, and countries. Second were U.S. Woman’s March’s in 2017 and 2018, and the “pink wave” in 2018 with women in the U.S. (and probably beyond) seeking elected office. Finally there is pushback from men like James Damore, “fired after he penned a memo suggesting women were less biologically capable of software engineering” from Google. He has filed a class action lawsuit against Google asserting hiring practices that discriminate against Caucasian and male employees and potential employees.” A key phrase from the USA Today coverage of the suit was Damore’s assertion that “woman are more interested in people than ideas.”

Curiously this is a key point that differentiates Wonder Woman from Superman — as pointed out in another extra on the DVD about the “Trinity” (those two plus Batman). This aspect of Wonder Woman’s character (both meanings) in the movie shows up again and again as she constantly seeks to help people, alleviate suffering, stop killing — all of those “people” things.  Also, this assertion makes the point that Damore fails to embrace — you need diversity to get people who are interested in ideas and people who are interested in people, and many more perspectives as well. I say this after many years as a hiring manager in the computer industry. Managers who seek clones of themselves suffer an organizational threatening myopia. Customers, users, vendors, co-workers come in all shapes and sizes, and to project a single perspective on these essential stakeholders will  limit product and corporate success.

But there is another aspect to Wonder Woman and the character manifesto that is significant, one we technologists should heed. Wonder Woman is at best technology neutral, and perhaps anti-technology. Compare her with Iron Man, the consummate engineer. Tony Stark (Iron Man) is always pushing the technology envelope to help people, making the world a better place. This is a driving force behind many technologists. While the end goal is the same with Wonder Woman, she brings goddess powers to address challenges, and is amused or disgusted with the early 20th century industrial world in the movie. This tension, between “technology progress” and a “return to yesteryear” is a very real factor in today’s divisive U.S. political partisanship. There is a very understandable anxiety associated with accelerating “progress,” often seen though the rapid advances of technology on all fronts. We techies must be aware both of the perceived concerns that emerge (often inflamed by fictional plot devices), and the real issues that the unintended impact of our creations may have on society. Again, having diverse perspectives on the requirements, development, and review teams can reduce the risks.

There is another thread in these movies that reflects a long-term technologists concern. A secondary aspect of Iron Man and The Last Jedi is the “arms dealers” who supply both sides.  Even those who profit from war while maintaining loyalty to a single perspective can raise concerns, particularly if they could exert undue political influence to facilitate conflicts. This is where the character manifesto, and professional ethics may be at odds with corporate objectives and return-on-investment.

Finally, I will point out the female leadership in producing and directing Wonder Woman is one key reason why “Finding the Wonder Woman Within” was created and added to the DVD in the first place. An example of applied diversity. We can hope as we move towards a more balanced and equitable society that these perspectives might reduce the problematic aspects of technology while applying it for the benefit of humanity.